Almost everyone knows that the last few years have ushered in a slew of new tube microphones. Low-cost ones, pricey ones, colorful ones, plain ones, transformer- balanced, and transformerless ones. There's even a phantom-powered tube mic out there. Seems if there was a way to put a tube in a mic circuit, someone would do it. Any new trails to blaze? Well, SE Electronics is onto one: two tubes in one microphone. Only CAD had done it before with the transformer-balanced (and pricier) VX2.
SE's circuit design is different from CAD's and definitely has merit: a 12AX7 on the input stage, and a 12AU7 on the output (substituting for a transformer). They call it the Gemini, and the first thing I have to mention is, MAN, this is a big, heavy mic! Its size and shape (and blue-ish color, even) are reminiscent of a large can of Foster's Lager (affectionately known as an "oil can" to beer enthusiasts). It tips the scales at a hefty two and a half pounds; best to mount this on a heavy duty mic stand. And while we're on the topic of mounting the Gemini, I should point out that the shock mount's winged retaining screw was very difficult to tighten sufficiently to prevent the Gemini from slipping and drooping downward. But I figured out a couple solutions to this annoyance. 1. Orient the mic upside-down (hang it from a high mic stand). This is often recommended with tube mics anyway, as the heat generated by the tubes dissipates upwards, away from the capsule. In this case, the upside- down orientation also encourages the shock mount's retaining screw to tighten, as opposed to loosen. 2. If you want to use the mic right-side up, you can flip the shock mount upside-down (you'll have to flip the basket within the elastic cords too) to achieve the same screw- tightening scenario. 3. SE has since redesigned the shock mount to prevent slipping.
Once I figured out the logistics of mounting the girthy Gemini, I tried it out on a variety of sources, putting it head-to-head with a vintage Neumann U 47. The first thing that struck me was that the Gemini is a LOUD mic; its output seemed to be about 3 to 5 dB's hotter than the U 47's (which I've always considered to be a loud mic in its own right). In any case, it never overdrove the preamp. Male vocals sounded robust and up-front-similar to the U 47, but with a crisp, slightly exaggerated top end. Ditto for female vocals, but in this case the high end boost was sometimes too wispy; ess'ing was a bit of a problem. I experimented with distance and placement and found that orienting the singer slightly off-axis helped warm up the sound. Acoustic guitar sounded beautiful through the Gemini. With the mic about two feet away and pointing between the soundhole and neck joint, every note shone through, and the mic's inherent brightness enhanced the guitar's overtones with a smooth airiness. When using the Gemini, you definitely won't be reaching for the 12 kHz knob. The Gemini also excelled when put about a foot in front of a bass guitar amp. Lately, I've been loving the sound of a bass amp mic'ed at a moderate distance-in this case a bit of the room came through, and, though it diffused the instrument's sound a bit, I think it made it sound more "real." I had similar luck when mic'ing the outside of a kick drum about a foot and half from the front head, and slightly off-axis to avoid huge gusts of air from hitting the diaphragm dead-on. The low thump of the drum came through in all its glory, but so did the detailed sound of the front head, as well as a hint of the room. Nice. But I have to say when mic'ing up the kick drum, I found myself wishing the Gemini had a switchable pad. The fact that it doesn't did not affect my situation, though if the drummer had been a heavier hitter there might have been an overdrive problem.
My personal feeling with a lot of contemporary condenser mics is that most of them sound too bright, especially on vocals. I realize a lot of production styles rely on very bright, sizzly vocal sounds. But, working with a lot of rock and roots artists over the years, I've always preferred darker, "rounder" sounds-they seem to cut through guitars and drums more easily. I mentioned this to an SE rep, and he said he had just the thing for me. He brought over an ICIS large-diaphragm tube condenser, and I checked it out alongside the Gemini. What a difference; it almost seemed to have a response curve opposite of the Gemini. On male vocals, the ICIS had a ballsy, gritty darkness to it, without sounding murky. Acoustic guitars sounded more "woody," with less string noise. Electric guitars barked without sounding too midrangey. At half the price (and half the number of tubes) of the Gemini, the ICIS would be my choice between the two. I'm not sure it's the perfect mic for everyone, but the ICIS is definitely worth trying if you've been seeking out an aggressive, yet less bright tube condenser.
It bears mentioning that recently, SE Electronics has completely retooled their operation. Unlike many of today's condenser mic manufacturers, SE now designs and fabricates almost all of their components in-house at their brand-new Shanghai facility. All of their previous models have been either discontinued or redesigned from the ground up. And the company offers an enticing 7-day trial period in which you can call them up, tell them you want to check out a mic, give them your credit card number as security, and have them send you a mic. You can then try it for a week and send it back (they'll pay all shipping and won't charge your card) if you don't want it. This surely struck me as a sensible and extremely helpful way to assist people shopping for a mic. (We all know it's hard to get much of a sense of what a particular mic sounds like by talking into it and listening with headphones in a noisy music chain store.) (Gemini $1499 MSRP, ICIS $749; www.seelectronics.com)